It’s been two years since Theatre for Living debuted the ambitious maladjusted. It was a risky bit of public engagement art that could have skewed pat or trite, considering the setup and scope: humanizing mental illness through interactive, forum theatre. Instead, it has toured through 26 communities over the past two years, mostly in Western Canada, in big cities and remote villages, helping craft community action plans based on the input of citizens who dare to make maladjusted their own.
“They come onto the stage to help find solutions,” says actor Sam Bob, over the phone from a tour stop in Calgary. It’s one of the last stops on the remounted maladjusted tour before it returns to Vancouver for a limited run at the Firehall Arts Centre. “Not from their seats, not talking, not espousing opinions, but getting on the stage and trying to effect solutions inside the character situations that they relate with. It’s really empowering for the audience when it’s their own community members coming up on the stage.”
It’s empowering for the actors as well. An original cast member, Bob signed on to play Frank, a recovery-house manager, because of his own experiences on the other side of the system.
“I’m eight years clean and sober,” Bob says. “I went and I lived in a recovery house for six months. Things had really gone south for me during the beginning process of my residential-school court case. I just wanted to not be involved in anything anymore and I ended up with a really bad drinking problem. I put myself in a full-on recovery [program] and I did the detox and the treatment, but the recovery house [Freedom House] was really good. It allowed me space to get my life back.”
A recovery house might not be for everyone, but, Bob says, it worked for him. He likes the policy of “no bullshit”, and the AA philosophy of principles before personality.
“Addiction is the great leveller,” Bob says. “Doesn’t matter about intelligence or your income or how popular you are, it will take you down.” He picks up this thought a few minutes later, explaining, “You learn how to help yourself by helping others. That’s kind of one of the joys of doing this play. I get to practise my program on the stage. I don’t want to espouse and I’m not standing on a soapbox, saying, ‘Here’s a guide for living and it’s a 12-step program, you gotta follow this.’ That’s not the way the program works. It’s by attraction—you can’t force anybody to do anything they don’t want to do. It worked for me and I had a lot of stuff to take care of: residential-school stuff, the whole internal crap of dealing with life on life’s terms, and alcoholism.…It’s not that everything’s okay, but you see things for how they really are. Not out of some kind of pity or anger or revenge, but you come to terms with things.”
Bob believes maladjusted’s legacy may very well be one of lasting change. It is for him, but he also sees it from the stage every night.
“The audiences are the encyclopedia of answers to the questions being asked about what our mental-health system is and what their community needs,” Bob says. “It’s the people who step onto the stage, they start something. They start a revolution of an idea: what can they do in their community to make their community stronger, better, and help those that need it the most?”
Maladjusted runs from Friday (March 20) to March 28 at the Firehall Arts Centre.